From the heads of Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher to the bodies of Gwen Stefani and Paris Hilton, the Von Dutch name has become a breakthrough phenomenon in the fashion industry over the past two years. While Von Dutch is well-known to celebrities and savvy shoppers alike, the story, the legend and the controversy that lie beneath the trendy clothing line are unknown to many.
Paranoid, angry, stubborn, often drunk and yet still considered by many to be a genius, Kenneth Howard (a.k.a. Von Dutch ) was a marvel in the hot rod automobile business, known for his pinstriping talent, who essentially revived what was considered a dead art.
Dutch, who attended Compton High School, began pinstriping at a young age and earned his famous nickname for being “as stubborn as a Dutchman.” Dutch is considered the father of the “kustom car” craze. While successful and well-known for his talent, Dutch was always against money and fame. He took pride in his poverty lifestyle and never wanted money for the work he completed. People who knew him have said he would roll over in his grave if he knew his name has turned into a global brand.
Following his death from liver disease at the age of 63 in September 1992, his two daughters, Lisa and Lorna Howard, were issued rights to the Von Dutch name. In 1996, Dutch’s daughters sold the Von Dutch rights to Michael Cassel, who wanted to start a business that would cater to hot-rod fans. In 1999, Von Dutch Originals was made an official label. Ed Boswell, a Los Angeles art collector and publisher, said Cassel, an entrepreneur from Venice, Calif., conned him out of his interests. Boswell said he has not received any portion of gross sales through Oct. 5. He said he made the line what it is today and that Cassel takes full credit for the concept. Boswell said he helped Dutch’s daughters, who sold him out to Cassel.
The battle over ownership rights is not the only controversy that exists within the Von Dutch saga. According to some people who knew the man, Dutch was a prejudiced and racist figure. Robert Williams, friend of Dutch, stated in “Von Who?,” an article written for the OCWeekly newspaper: “(Dutch) was quite a racist; didn’t like anybody. He had all the trappings of being a Neo-Nazi.”
Boswell, who owns the rights to all photos of Von Dutch, supported the claim as well. Boswell said that in a farewell note Dutch wrote to close friends while on his death bed, he closed with “Bye, Heil Hitler.”
After hearing news of this, CAPitate, a British online company that sells baseball caps and trucker hats through capitate.co.uk, took Von Dutch hats off its market, regardless of high sales.
“We stopped selling the hats when we became aware of the allegations in the ‘Von Who?’ at the start of
September,” CAPitate Managing Director Ian Spencer said. “At this point we removed our Von Dutch range from sale. We considered our position and about two weeks later, mid-September, we took the decision to offer customers who purchased Von Dutch headwear from us the opportunity to return the cap for a full refund, regardless of when they bought the cap, or its condition.”
CAPitate is not the only store to take Von Dutch off its shelves. Locally, West Moon, an eclectic boutique located near campus, which carried a limited number of the Von Dutch hats, discontinued its sales following news of the bigotry allegations.
“Shortly after the hats were bought for the store, a friend brought the company’s background to my attention and our store does not support that. That is not what our business is,” owner and buyer for West Moon Jamie Decker said.
Many people refuse to wear the popular line. Some who refuse are traditional hot-rodders, while others are those who believe the line has killed the Von Dutch name.
“I am a fan of Von Dutch, the pinstriper, not Von Dutch, the clothing line,” said Fox News reporter Heidi Cuda who has reported on Von Dutch. “I truly think the clothing line is stupid, mainly because it has no soul, it doesn’t pay the family and it’s worn by vapid celebrities.”
Others have problems with how the clothing label has moved away from its hot-rodder origins.
“Von Dutch represents how absurd fashion is. People are representing this label and have no idea what the concept behind the label is,” Decker said.
Boswell is especially disappointed in the way the Von Dutch name is being represented today.
“Von Dutch is not Britney, Justin, Rodman and Paris,” he said. “It’s the Third Reich, explosions, hot rods, anti-social behavior, guns, knives, motorcycles, alcohol, pot, pinstriping and disdain for profiteering jerks posing as edgy fashion visionaries. In my view, Von Dutch is a classic case of rank exploitation and superficial and mindless hipness posing as the real deal.”